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Sports Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 31, 2008

Synchronized friends make a splash

By Saranac Hale Spencer

BINGHAMTON — With a curved arm and the gentle slope of an extended leg, a gaggle of swans cuts through the pool’s chlorine calm to the eight-count of familiar, practiced songs.

Below the surface, music is pumped through underwater speakers, but Payton Fontaine and Ariana Valverde don’t need it.  They have their routines memorized to a measured beat.

The pair, both from Altamont, competed in the solo synchronized swimming competition at the Empire State Games in Binghamton last week.  It was the first trip to the games for each, and they bubbled over with excitement at explaining how they twist upside down, like a corkscrew, until the last toe disappears into a silent swirl before thrusting their legs up again and bursting into a split.

Valverde, 12, and Fontaine, 13, each put her arms to her side and bent her elbows, palms up, moving quickly back and forth to demonstrate sculling, the base on which most of the moves stand.  Making variations on the scull can twist a swimmer’s legs clockwise or counterclockwise and move them up or down.  “I like rocket splits [and] spins,” Fontaine said.

The sport was made popular by the World War II-era movie star Esther Williams, Fontaine said.  “She did a basic kind of synchronized swimming,” Fontaine said of her predecessor.  “I think she’d be really impressed with what we do.”

When it was adopted by the Amateur Athletic Union in 1941, synchronized swimming already had a nearly 40-year history, according to United States Synchronized Swimming, Inc., the organization that now officially governs the sport.  Often called water ballet through the first half of the century, Katherine Curtis started a club of that name and performed with her “modern mermaids” at the World’s Fair in 1934, according to the group.

Fifty years later, in 1984, synchronized swimming became an Olympic event.  “So, of course there was a spike in popularity,” said Taylor Payne, of U.S. Synchronized Swimming.  That Olympics was held in Los Angeles, Calif., not far from the training center for the Olympic team, which is in the San Francisco Bay area, she said, home to many of the strongest swimmers.

It is also a sport that attracts athletes from other arenas, Payne said, and named former gymnasts, swimmers, ice skaters, and dancers among the ranks.  Synchronized swimming has elements from several areas, and, she said, “That appeals to our younger athletes.”

Fontaine, who came to the sport through the Girl Scouts, had done ballet and tap dance, before swimming, and Valverde had played soccer and done gymnastics, ballet, and jazz.  Both agreed, with a glance at each other and not a moment’s hesitation, that synchronized swimming was far superior.

Neither girl has a swimming pool of her own, but they both practice at area YMCAs three to four times a week for three hours.  For Fontaine, who tried out for the Empire State Games last year and was one spot away from the team, it paid off this year.  She was part of an eight-person group that took home the silver medal for the team event.

“You practice and practice until you get everything perfect,” she said.

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